Enchanting Iceland

Last year my mum shared an article with me titled ‘How Travelling In Your Twenties Will Ruin Your Life’. As someone who will jump on a plane to anywhere in the world for any type of holiday – whether it’s a luxury Barbados beach or Thailand on a shoestring – I was interested to see what it had to say about the ‘nasty’ side effects of travelling. It didn’t comment on bad hotels or unknown diseases… No, this article summed up the susceptibility that twentysomethings have to snowball theory of travelling, when the dissatisfying return home from exciting new experiences starts the ultimate cycle; the more you travel, the more you want to travel. Yes, it’s a jokey article, but it opened my eyes because it explained exactly how I’d felt for the past six years since I booked that first fateful holiday; the travel bug is not one that is easily exterminated, and now I may never be able to stop.

And then, despite this epitome, I visited Iceland. A HUGE tick off my bucket list. I’d always vowed to go around my birthday as, thanks to a thousand postcards and various TV documentaries, I knew Iceland under a blanket of snow and ice is a spectacular sight to see. In my short time in Iceland I witnessed powerful forces of nature, saw the spectacular light show that is the northern lights and explored enchanting, loveable Reykjavik city centre. All in all it was a wonderful trip that’s left me with a head full of fantastic memories that will last a lifetime and a thousand reasons to visit again.

Whether you plan to visit in winter or summer, the land of fire and ice is a captivating country that will capture your heart. It’s impossible to see Iceland in one fell swoop (unless you’re planning on staying at least a few weeks), so this blog post is simply explaining what I did with my four days and what I’d do differently.

We arrived at our hotel in Hafnarfordur late on Saturday night and spent an hour or so getting our bearings. It’s a lovely little town 10km south of Reykjavik* with great transport links, a lovely harbour and an awesome pizza place (Pizzan, more on them later). We were lucky to get upgraded to the quirky Hotel Viking, a Viking-themed hotel and restaurant with a fascinating design and its own little hot spring.

*FYI – the bus service to Reykjavik (No.1) costs 400KR pp each way, which is payable in exact change on the bus; simply drop the right amount into the driver’s box and walk on. 1/3/5 day passes can be purchased too but we didn’t use the bus enough to need them. The bus service in and around Reykjavik is excellent; this one runs every half hour on Sundays and 15 minutes during the week from early in the morning to late at night

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Hafnarfjordur harbour (the view from directly opposite Hotel Viking!)

Itinerary:
Day 1 – Explore Reykjavik & northern lights tour
Day 2 – Whale watching
Day 3 – Golden Circle Tour
Day 4 – Shopping before heading home

Day 1

We’d left our first day clear to explore Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world at a latitude of 64°08’N. It’s home to the vast majority of Iceland’s inhabitants (200,000 out of 325,000) and is the centre of culture and life of the Icelandic people as well as being the focal point of tourism in Iceland.

We spent our day exploring Reykjavik on foot and I’m so happy we did; getting lost in the maze of colourful houses and stumbling across beautiful street artwork was half of the reason I fell in love with Reykjavik. Our day started at the Sun Voyager, the iconic and fascinating sculpture representing an ode to the sun that has become a symbol of undiscovered territory and a dream of freedom, and continued from here towards the harbour. This path led us past the Harpa Concert Hall, an architecturally stunning building in a prominent position overlooking Faxafloi Bay that, with its steel framework clad with geometric shaped glass panels of different colours, is a true masterpiece of modern engineering.

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The Sun Voyager (short arse stood on the curb)

After wandering around the harbour district we made our way up and across town to the white concrete church Hallgrimskirka, a Lutheran parish church that took 41 years to build; construction work began in 1945 and ended in 1986. On our way we happened across Tjornan, a small lake in the centre of the city that was completely frozen over and hidden under a blanket of snow. After a spot of skate-less ice skating (during which Sam barrelled into me so I landed on my camera, leaving me with a beautiful bruise the remainder of the holiday!) we continued up to enjoy the view over the city. Hallgrimskirka stands on top of a hill high above the city and towers at 73m, meaning on a clear days you can see over 40km from its viewing deck over the city, bay and mountains. It’s 900KR for the entry fee and, although there might be a short wait to get up and down as there’s only one small elevator, a trip to Reykjavik isn’t complete without a panoramic view from high above the city.

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Hallgrimskirkja at sunset
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View towards Reykjavik harbour

We ended our first full day in Iceland with a northern lights tour with Gray Line. The northern lights are one of the biggest draws to Iceland, however they are also one of the most elusive and unpredictable attractions due to the number of variables you need to consider to view them: season, weather, location and luck. We visited at the end of January, slap bang in the middle of the best season to see them (from September to mid-April). Although the winter nights make aurora viewing easier as the nights are long and dark these months also unfortunately have the worst weather, with lots of rain and snow blocking the view. Tour operators will give you a lot of great information and chase the lights for you, however if you’ve rented a car there’s nothing stopping you checking the aurora forecast and driving out to somewhere dark to try spotting them yourself. If we had a car that’s what we’d have done every night for the rest of the holiday! Our little light show was maybe a tad underwhelming compared to the postcards, but the beauty of even a small display is breathtaking and should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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Us under the northern lights…
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…A beautiful spectacle!

 We got back to the hotel at 2am, tired from the bus ride but very content with what we’d seen.

Day 2

Winter whale watching is a stark contrast of rough seas with no sightings and spectacular views of either humpbacks breaching or large pods of orcas (usually with babies at this time of year!). Unfortunately we didn’t spot anything in Faxafloi bay, where our tour operator Elding sails, however we were lucky to have a lovely clear day with bright blues skies and a sunset to finish our tour, so it was in no way a waste of a day.

If you want to go whale watching in Iceland in winter I would recommend you visit Grundarfjordur in the west (180km drive north of Reykjavik), as this is where orcas have been known to visit in the past few years. Of course sightings are not guaranteed! My advice would be to check the whale watching diaries and Facebook sites beforehand (see Elding here and Laki here) and book your tour whilst in Iceland so you can check the day’s weather forecast and give yourself the best chance.

As for me, I have a ticket to go on another Elding tour that’s valid for up to two years and plan on using it during my next trip, probably in summer when the chance of a sighting is much better! I’d highly recommend choosing Elding for your tour; they’re knowledgeable, the cafe is great (you have to try a whale punch) and they provide warm overalls (as seen below) to keep you warm on particularly chilly days!

After a quick detour around Reykjavik’s Old Harbour district to browse the tourist shops, pick up one of the highly rated hot dogs from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur and pick up a bottle of wine*, we decided to spend some time at the hotel on our second night. We had a couple of drinks and ate a mammoth meal at Fjorukrain, the hotel’s restaurant, before spending the remainder of the evening soaking in their little hot spring with a drink in hand. Despite it being a chilling -3°c outside, the hotel’s 30°c+ hot spring is sheltered and cosy, making it perfect for a romantic evening… Especially if, like us, you’re lucky and don’t get disturbed!

*FYI – Alcohol is very expensive in Iceland and can only be purchased from licensed restaurants and Government-run bottle shops, so my advice if you’re on a budget is to grab a bottle of your favourite spirit from the incredibly cheap airport and have a couple of drinks before you go out. We paid £11 for 1L of gin at the airport and roughly £9 for a mid to low range bottle of wine at the bottle shop in Reykjavik.

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Dinner at Fjorukrain: Tagliatelle with garlic roasted lobster tails in a rich cream sauce (served with cheese on toast, oddly) and a HUGE cheeseburger and chips. We couldn’t finish it all!

Day 3

I’d been really looking forward to this day because, unlike a lot of sights in Iceland, The Golden Circle Tour guarantees you’ll witness some of Iceland’s most spectacular scenery in one day. We were again booked with Gray Line and happily so; our tour guides throughout all of our trips had been entertaining, knowledgeable and friendly, and today was no different. We started at Thingvellir National Park, where culture, history and natural beauty combine as the most important heritage site in Iceland. It was here that the Althing (General Assemby), at which laws were recited and announcements and summonses made, was established in 930 and continued meeting for more than 850 years until 1798. The park is now a site of natural beauty due to both its rock formation comprised of lava layers and because it’s where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are literally pulling Iceland apart at 2cm per year. A visit here would give you tonnes more information but I don’t want to bore you if you’re not interested!

We then moved onto Gullfoss (golden falls) waterfall, a magnificent force of nature that first tumbles 11m in front of you before plunging into a crevice 21m below, making it look like the water disappears into a crack in the world. Even as someone whose career is based around words, I find it almost impossible to illustrate the scale, power and sheer beauty of Gullfoss. Whether you visit in winter and see it partially frozen and glowing blue with ice or in summer, where rainbows frequently dance above its flowing water, it’s an unmissable sight when visiting Iceland. Make sure you give yourself time to get a bowl of traditional Icelandic lamb soup from the cafe here because, although it might seem expensive at 1500KR for soup it’s apparently the best in the country, it comes with as many bread rolls as you can eat and the best bit… It’s refillable as many times as you can stuff in. Enjoy!

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The partially frozen Gullfoss waterfall. A photo can’t capture its beauty!

Next for us was the Haukadalur geothermal area, which is home to Geysir, the most famous hot spring in the world that, in its most active time, erupted scalding geothermal water up to 80m in the air. Today tourists head here to visit Strokkur geyser, which shoots a column of water up to 30m (100ft) into the air every 4-8 minutes in a thrilling display. It reminded me of a firework display; everyone patiently waiting in the cold with cameras ready before ooing and aahing when it finally erupted. Lastly we visited Skalholt church, a location that has earned a well-deserved dominance in Iceland’s history, as it was where the main collections of medieval Icelandic books and manuscripts were written and preserved.

We ended this very long day with a pizza from Pizzan and another dip in the hot spring at the hotel, the perfect end to a perfect day.

Day 4

Our last day in Iceland was spent shopping on Reykjavik’s famous Laugevegar street – a quaint, pedestrianised street filled with a mixture of tourist, designer and traditional Icelandic shops – revisiting our favourite places (the harbour and the Harpa) and enjoying fresh fish and chips at Icelandic Fish & Chips. We visited this place in particular because of the rave reviews on TripAdvisor and I’m SO glad we did; they had a huge selection of fresh fish that you can accompany with wedges and a variety of dips and salads.  The batter was light and not at all greasy and the mango salad I chose to go with my fish was tasty and tangy; an odd but fantastic accompaniment. On top of all this it was also the most reasonably priced restaurant meal we had in Iceland!

It was sad to leave Reykjavik but my quick visit here has confirmed everything I’d previously thought; Iceland is one of my favourite places in the world and I’ll be back as soon as possible.

I loved literally every second I was in this country but there are a few things I’d do differently, given the choice. The first would be to hire a car – so long as you’re comfortable driving in snow and ice – for two main reasons; to save money and have more freedom. I would suggest doing the golden circle tour yourself as entry to all the places we visited is free and you can spend more or less time at places, as you wish. Secondly I’d take more cash! We’d have a rough month after Christmas and could only afford £330 (55,000KR) between us and, with meals in restaurants being roughly 4,000-5,000KR each, we didn’t get a chance to eat in any of the ‘fancy’ restaurants. And lastly I’d stay longer. We didn’t get chance to visit any of the museums or the Whales of Iceland exhibition which, because I’m hugely interested in marine mammals, was a bit disappointing. I’d also make the effort to travel out of Reykjavik to Laugardalslaug or one of the other communal baths in Reykjavik as this is supposed to be a great way to speak to locals and enjoy the relaxing warmth of the hot springs. And the Blue Lagoon was closed for rennovations whilst we were there! So if I visited again I’d make it either my first or last stop from the airport (see combined airport and Blue Lagoon tours – from what I can gather this seems like the best way to do this).

Despite these comments my whistle-stop tour of Reykjavik was perfect and I have to say a massive shout out to my SO Sam for treating me for my birthday 🙂

We stayed at:

The Viking Village Hotel, Hafnarfjordur
I loved our hotel! It was fun, quirky, traditional and down to earth. The staff were friendly and helpful and the restaurant served ridiculously large portions at food at pretty reasonable prices. A few notes – breakfast hasn’t got a huge amount of choice but there’s enough to fill you up with toast, European meats and cheeses, cereal and fish available. Plus if you arrive after 6pm you need to go to the restaurant opposite the entrance and find someone to check in with. But overall it’s a great little hotel and I’d highly recommend staying here if sleeping in a city centre isn’t your thing.

Pros – easy transport links to Reykjavik right outside, hot spring, individual decor, excellent wifi, comfy beds, good sized rooms, beautiful harbour opposite, great pizza place near, close to shops

 

We ate at:

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, Tryggvagata ****
Exceptionally cheap but awesome hot dog stand round the corner from the Harpa. Make sure you ask for one with everything but, if you’re hungry, load up with two or so each!
Price: 400KR per hot dog

Fjorukrain – The Viking Village Restaurant, Hafnarfjordur ****
Viking portions at the Viking Hotel’s restaurant! I’ve said it above and I’ll say it again, this restaurant was ace. The decor is so interesting and fun (there’s a fish tank above the bar) and, although we didn’t partake, I’ve heard they do ‘Viking kidnapping experiences’ here, which sound pretty awesome. And the food… Big portions can sometimes compromise on flavour but not here. The cheeseburger was huge, juicy and complete with a mammoth portion of fries while my creamy lobster tagliatelle (which came with cheese on toast, bonus points for that) was packed full of lobster as well as nuts and vegetables, making it extra tasty. Prices are okay, yes it’s a bit expensive but you’re pushed to find anywhere in or around Reykjavik that isn’t, so no complaints in that regard.
Price: starters from 1,500KR, mains range from 3,000-6,000KR. Ours were 3,020KR for the pasta and 3,070KR for the burger. Drinks were 800KR for a pint of soft drink and 1000KR for a pint of beer.

Hamborgarabulla Tomasar, Geirsgotu ***
Cool burger joint just up the road from where the whale watching boat tours depart from. Grab your condiments from the corner and order at the bar. I had the pulled pork burger and didn’t rate it much… It tasted okay but way too tomatoey, but Sam said his cheeseburger was awesome. So despite my review I’d say it’s definitely worth a visit when you’re around this area to grab some tasty, decently priced food.
Price:

Icelandic Fish & Chips, Tryggvagata *****
We went for a late lunch without a reservation and were seated straight away with menus and water. I ordered the red fish with wedges, mango salad and chilli dip (one of the recommended combinations on the board) and it was easily the best fish and chips I’ve ever had! As I’ve mentioned above the mango salad was an amazingly weird but wonderful combination that I’d highly recommend as a change of pace from the usual greasy, fried fish and chips. It’s reasonably priced and the attached lava museum and gift shop is a nice way to learn about Iceland’s geology. It was my favourite meal of our holiday and definitely worth a visit.
Price:

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Pizzan, Hafnarfjordur *****
Finally, we’re onto Pizzan. This was our saving grace whilst in Iceland because – as I’ve mentioned a couple of times – food is SO expensive here. In Hafnarfjordur there’s KFC, Burger King, Subway and Domino’s all fairly close but don’t go! One big pizza from here fed the two of us (and we’re not little eaters) and only cost tuppence compared to everything else in Reykjavik. There are loads of toppings to choose from and the final result was a cheesy, fully loaded chicken, pepper and jalapeno masterpiece that I’m still dreaming about today. When in Iceland don’t eat whale, eat Pizzan.
Price: big pizza 1800KR + more for extra toppings

Side note – all these restaurants may be highly rated but I spent a lot of time researching where to eat in Iceland before we went. I hope this blog will help someone else streamline their research!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Carol says:

    Hi Lizzy,
    Great post. Lots of useful info! You mentioned that you wish you would have rented a car…from what you saw in your northern light tour, did the roads look safe enough to chase the lights? I am planning to go at the end of January and am unsure if I should rent a car or just do tours. It’ll be a solo trip and I’ve never driven in snowy roads, as most roads get cleaned up where I’m at. Thoughts?

    Like

    1. elizabethcriley92 says:

      Hi Carol, thanks for your comment. I would say that although the roads looked clear enough to drive a car, I’d only recommend it if you’re confident with your ability to cope with possible ice. But to be honest, it completely depends on where you’re planning to stay and what you’re wanting to do. The tours from Reykjavik are fantastic and the car hire is expensive, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to need a 4×4 at the end of Jan. I’m going back early March and it’s touch and go whether I’ll need a 2WD or 4×4 – I’m just hiring when I get there to ensure I have the right vehicle. Where are you spending time while in Iceland? x

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